On the ontological turn in anthropology

Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013 (Savage Minds)

by  on November 27, 2013

Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.

The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.

In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.

Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 1 (Somatosphere)


January 15, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received from Judith FarquharMax Palevsky Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Answers from a number of other scholars will appear as separate posts in the series.

In providing a reading list, I had lots of good “ontological” resources at hand, having just taught a seminar called “Ontological Politics.”  This list is pared down from the syllabus; and the syllabus itself was just a subset of the many useful philosophical, historical, and ethnographic readings that I had been devouring during the previous year, when I was on leave.

I really like all these pieces, though I don’t actually “follow” all of them.  This is a good thing, because the field — if it can be called that — tends to go in circles, with all the usual suspects citing all the usual suspects.  In the end, as we worked our way through the course, I found the ethnographic work more exciting than most of the more theoretically inclined writing.  At the other end of the spectrum, I feel quite transformed by having read Heidegger’s “The Thing” — but I’m not sure why!

Philosophical and methodological works in anthropology and beyond:

Philippe Descola, 2013, The Ecology of Others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

William Connolly, 2005, Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch. 3, “Pluralism and the Universe” [on William James], pp. 68-92.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2004, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipiti 2 (1): 3-22.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2012, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger events and subjects in Amazonia,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27-43.

Marisol de la Cadena, 2010, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.

Bruno Latour, 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225-248.

A dialogue from Common Knowledge 2004 (3): Ulrich Beck: “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach” (pp. 430-449) and Bruno Latour: “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” (pp. 450-462).

Graham Harman, 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.  (OA)

Isabelle Stengers, 2005, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 994-1003.

Martin Heidegger, 1971, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Tr. Albert Hofstadter).  New York: Harper & Row, pp. 163-180

Graham Harman, 2010, “Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger,”Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 17-25.

Jane Bennett and William Connolly, 2012, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 153-171.

Tim Ingold, 2004, “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” in John Clammer et al., eds., Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-57.

Annemarie Mol, 1999, “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Terrific ethnographic studies very concerned with ontologies:

Mario Blaser, 2010, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helen Verran, 2011, “On Assemblage: Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Media (2003-2006) and HMS Investigator (1800-1805).” In Tony Bennet & Chris Healey, eds.,  Assembling Culture.  London & New York: Routledge, pp. 163-176.

Morten Pedersen, 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

John Law & Marianne Lien, 2013, “Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology,” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 363-378.

Stacey A. Langwick, 2011, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research concerns traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Westview 1996),Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke 2002), and Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone 2012) (with Qicheng Zhang), and editor (with Margaret Lock) of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke 2007).

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 2 (Somatosphere)


January 17, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received from Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the University of Oxford. 

Those of us who have been brought up in the science and technology studies (STS) tradition look at claims of an ‘ontological turn’ with a strange sense of familiarity: it’s déjà vu all over again! For we can read the whole history of STS (cheekily and retroactively, of course) as a ‘turn to ontology’, albeit one that was rarely thematized as such.

A key text in forming STS and giving it a proto-ontological orientation (if such a term can be invented) is Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). On its surface the book is an introduction to central themes and keywords in the philosophy of science. In effect, it launches a programme of research that actively blurs the lines between depictions of the world and interventions into its composition. And it does so by bringing to the fore the constitutive role of experimental practices – a key leitmotiv of what would eventually become STS.

Hacking, of course, went on to develop a highly original form of pragmatic realism, particularly in relation to the emergence of psychiatric categories and new forms of personhood. His 2004 book, Historical Ontology, captures well the main thrust of his arguments, and lays out a useful contrast with the ‘meta-epistemology’ of much of the best contemporary writing in the history of science.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and disrespecting our good old friend Chronology. The truth is that references to ontology are scarce in the foundational texts of STS (the term is not even indexed in Representing and Intervening, for instance). This is hardly surprising: alluding to the ontological implies a neat distinction between being and representing, precisely the dichotomy that STS scholars were trying to overcome – or, more accurately, ignore – at the time. The strategy was to enrich our notion of representation, not to turn away from it in favour of higher plane of being.

It is in the particular subfield of studies of particle physics that the discussion about ontology within STS developed, simply because matters of reality – and the reality of matter – featured much more prominently in the object of study. Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984) was one of the few texts that tackled ontological matters head on, and it shared with Hacking’s an emphasis on the role of experimental machineries in producing agreed-upon worlds. In his following book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995), Pickering would develop this insight into a full-fledged theory of temporal emergence based on the dialectic of resistance and accommodation.

An interesting continuation and counterpoint in this tradition is Karen Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007). Barad’s thesis, particularly her theory of agential realism, is avowedly and explicitly ontological, but this does not imply a return to traditional metaphysical problem-definitions. In fact, Barad speaks of ‘onto-epistemology’, or even of ‘onto-ethico-epistemology’, to describe her approach. The result is an aggregation of planes of analysis, rather than a turn from one to the other.

Arguments about the nature of quarks, bubble chambers and quantum physics might seem very distant from the sort of anthropo-somatic questions that preoccupy readers of this blog, but it is worth noting that this rarefied discussion has been the terrain where key elements of the current STS interest in ontology – the idioms of performativity and materialism in particular – were first tested.

The work that best represents this current interest in matters of ontology within STS is that of Annemarie Mol and John Law. Their papers on topologies (e.g., ‘Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology’ in 1994; ‘Situating technoscience:  an inquiry into spatialities’, 2001) broke new ground in making explicit the argument about the multiplicity of the world(s), and served to develop a first typology of alternative modes of reality. Mol’s ethnography of atherosclerosis, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2003), is of course the (provisional?) culmination of this brand of ‘empirical philosophy’, and a text that offers a template for STS-inflected anthropology (and vice versa).

One distinct contribution of this body of work – and this is a point made by Malcolm Ashmore in his review of The Body Multiple – is to extend STS modes of inquiry beyond the study of new or controversial entities, and draw the same kind of analytical intensity to realities – like that (or those) of atherosclerosis – whose univocal reality we tend to take for granted. For better and worse, STS grew out of an effort to understand how new facts and artifacts enter our world, and the field remains attached to all that is (or appears to be) new – even if the end-result of the analysis is often to challenge those claims to novelty. The current ‘ontological turn’ in STS would then represent an effort to excavate mundane layers of reality, to draw attention to the performed or enacted nature of that that appears old, settled or uncontroversial. I suspect this manoeuvre carries less value in Anthropology, where the everyday and the taken-for-granted is often the very locus of inquiry.

The other value of the ‘ontological turn’ is, in my view, to recast the question of politics – as both an object of study and a mode of engagement with the world. This recasting can take at least two different forms. There are those who argue that attending to the ontological, i.e., to the reality of plural worlds and the unavoidable condition of multinaturalism, intensifies (and clarifies) the normative implications of our analyses (see for instance the genealogical argument put forward very forcefully by Dimitris Papadopoulos in his article ‘Alter-ontologies: towards a constituent politics in technoscience’). A slightly different course of action is to think of ontology as a way of addressing the intertwining of the technological and the political. Excellent recent examples of this approach are Noortje Marres’s Material Participation: Technology, the Environment, and everyday Publics (2012) and Andrew Barry’s Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (2013).

In sum, and to stake out my own position, I think STS is best seen as a fairly tight bundle of analytical sensibilities – sensibilities that are manifested in an evolving archipelago of case studies. It is not a theory of the world (let alone a theory of being), and it quickly becomes trite and somewhat ritualistic when it is transformed into a laundry list of statements about what the world is or should be like. In this sense, an ‘ontological turn’ would run counter to the STS tradition, as I see it, if it implies asserting a particular ontology of the world, regardless of whether the claim is that that ontology is plural, multiple, fluid, relational, etc. This sort of categorical, pre-empirical position smothers the critical instincts that energize the field and have driven its evolution over the last three decades. Steve Woolgar and I have formulated this view in a recent piece for Social Studies of Science (‘The wrong bin bag:  a turn to ontology in science and technology studies?’), and a similar argument been made often and persuasively by Michael Lynch (e.g., “Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology”).

Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Deputy Director at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the politics of scientific research and its governance. He directs the research programme BioProperty, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates the role of property rights and new forms of ownership in biomedical research. Javier is also currently participating in research projects on the governance of climate geoengineering, and new forms of consumer mobilization in food markets.

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Ontological Turns Inside-Out (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Thursday, January 16, 2014, at 4:35 pm.

It seems Ontology has finally gone mainstream in anthropology. Only a few years ago, it was something heard on the edges of the disciplinary discourse. Now you can’t throw a stick without running into a blog post, article, conference paper, or what-have-you that uses ontology as a central theme. Over at Somatosphere, Judith Farquhar has assembled a nice reading list for an introductory understanding of the “ontological turn” in anthropology. Then, over at Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC), Lyle has a solid critiqueof this turn in anthropology – suggesting that it fails to change the form of inquiry to match its subject. It’s a running joke that anthropology has taken so many turns in the last  few decades that we’ve often ended up right where we started. I think there’s a truth to that, and I appreciate Lyle for calling out the underlying conservativism that can be found in this (or any) turn.

As a frequent (though not influential) supporter of the ontological turn in anthropology, I feel as though I should put in my thoughts on all of this. I can’t speak to the events at the AAA – I wasn’t there and I haven’t followed up on any of it as I’ve been obsessively working on an NSF proposal for the last two months (which I just submitted yesterday!!) – so I’m going to talk about some impressions that I get from this turn and then some of my thoughts on where things ought to go from my perspective. My first impression is much like Lyle’s. In the name of ontology, there seems to be a retreat to classical ethnography and broad, sweeping comparative analysis. The terms have changed – reflecting on “ontologies” rather than “cultures” – but the means, methods, and results are much the same. In this sense, it’s not really overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism so much as bringing everything into the cultural domain. I agree with Lyle when he says:

…the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies.”

He continues:

The stakes are not only ontological, but also ethical: how to live in this changed world? How to live together amidst these changed beings and groupings? How to make anthropological knowledge about these changed beings and lives? The point is not that ontology is not a useful question for anthropologists, and indeed forms a productive critique of the comparative form of cultural anthropology. Rather, the point is that an ontological critique must be coupled with a transformation of the procedures and form of anthropological inquiry. The question is where one goes after making this ontological “turn”: towards the contemporary, or towards the 19th century.”

I think that there is an element of this in the “ontological turn” most notably with John Law‘s and Annamarie Mol’s work – attempting to understand how the creation of new beings or systems of relation affect those beings and relations that already exist. This is expressed by the two (though Mol deserves credit for coming up with the term) in their conception of “ontological politics” (a concept that, to me, mirrors Latour and Stengers’s “cosmopolitics”). The way I see it, there can be no concrete ontology, not because we cannot know (this is the difference between this and earlier critiques) or access ontological reality, but because ontological reality is itself fundamentally weird and always in the process of being produced. Ontology is never settled, and that’s why we have to be cognizant of other ontologies, and attentive to the relationships between them. Furthermore, we have to be attentive to our own ontological commitments and effects. It’s not merely a question of understanding others’ ontologies, but of understanding our own as anthropologists. This is why I would ask that we take the “ontological turn” not left, right, or wrong, butinside-out. Turn it back on ourselves and our own practices rather than focusing once again on others. What kind of world are we creating through our practices as anthropologists? What kind of world do we want to create? And how can our methods and practices make that world come into being? These are the important questions an ontological perspective begins to address.

I still support an ontological anthropology, but one that is strange, weird, magical, and inside-out.

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A Reader’s Guide to the Ontological Turn – Addendum (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Friday, January 17, 2014, at 11:57 am.

Somatosphere’s recently shared two posts (part 1 and part  2) of reader’s guides to the ontological turn, which are extremely useful and full of interesting books/articles/etc. that I hadn’t encountered before. However, there are some noteworthy exceptions, and so I feel compelled to add my own list of influential works in my ontological education. I don’t have tons of time at the moment, so I’ll just write it up as a list and hopefully you can click through and decide which are important to you. Here goes:


Academic blogging has been a central feature of the ontological turn over the last several years, so I think it’s unfortunate that these have been left out of the recent reading lists. Much of my own education has taken place through reading and engaging with these blogs – I owe the greatest debt to all of these writers. Here are some of my favorites:

Larval Subjects by Levi Bryant

Synthetic_Zero by Michael, Arran, and DMF

Archive Fire by Michael

Attempts at Living by Arran James

Knowledge Ecology by Adam Robbert

Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv

Circling Squares by Phillip

Formal Publications (books/articles/etc.)

These could also be considered author recommendations since I won’t list all books and articles by each individual.

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson

The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

After Method by John Law (also check out his website for tons of great essays and articles!)

The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History by Manuel De Landa

Ecologies of the Moving Image by Adrian Ivakhiv

Territories of Difference by Arturo Escobar

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

Cosmopolitics by Isabelle Stengers

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway

Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William Connolly

The Ecological Thought by Tim Morton

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies

That’s it for now. If I’ve forgotten anyone/anything please fill in by commenting! I will add to the comments too if anything else comes to mind.

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